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Merchants optimistic about season

December 28, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Snow disrupted two of the busiest holiday shopping weekends in December, but area retailers are optimistic that a last-minute shopping frenzy will make up for lost sales.

"Weather's really been a big factor this year, unfortunately," said Tom Saquella of the Maryland Retailers Association.

Back-to-back snowy weekends kept shoppers away from the stores.

Some stores, including those in Prime Outlets in Hagerstown, had to close early or open late because of poor road conditions.

But last weekend people flocked back into stores, giving retailers hope of recouping their losses, Saquella said.

Valley Mall counted 69,000 shoppers on the Saturday before Christmas, said Marketing Director Julie Rohm.

"From the way the cash registers were ringing, Saturday was definitely one of the best shopping days for merchants," Rohm said.

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The Saturday before Christmas is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the season, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. This year was no exception.

Because Christmas fell on Thursday this year, there were extra days between then and the holiday to shop, Rohm said.

There were other glimmers of hope.

Valley Mall gift certificate sales were up 15 percent over last year, Rohm said.

Photos with Santa at the mall were up 12 percent over last year, she said.

While the weather curtailed shopping at Prime Outlets earlier in the month, stores extended their hours closer to the holiday to give people more time closer to Christmas, said Marketing Director Liza Gonzales.

Last year was the outlet center's best holiday sales season since it opened in 1998, she said.

This year, traffic counts were up even higher, she said.

"We're pretty much astonished by the numbers," she said, although she could not give specific numbers for proprietary reasons.

Based on a survey of Maryland retailers in early November, the association had predicted an increase in sales of 5 percent over last year, Saquella said.

"It would have probably been the best year since 1999," he said.

But with the weather it was uncertain whether that benchmark could be reached.

"They still have a ways to go," Saquella said.

Sales figures won't be available until late January.

Nationally, the week ending Dec. 20 showed that retail sales were up 5.7 percent over the same week last year.

"This marks the beginning of the late season shopping spree when consumers flock to the stores to finish their holiday gift buying," said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York City.

Shoppers at Valley Mall on Friday said they spent more money this year than last.

Betty Seavolt, 49, of Hancock, said she thought the merchandise cost more this year.

Johnny and Linda Price of St. James Village bought a pool table and a four-wheeler for their grandchildren.

"The older they get, the more it costs," said Johnny Price, who is semi-retired from the drywall business.

Some people said they tried to cut back on holiday gifts this year.

Joseph Cartwright, 28, of Big Pool, said he's trying to save money to buy a grass trimmer and other things for around the house.

But his mother, Julia Cartwright, who was visiting from Chicago, said she made up for her son's thriftiness.

"I spent plenty of money. Grandchildren, family, why not?" she said.

Lawrence and Sylvia Alsip Jr. of Maugansville said they spent a little bit less than usual because they're planning to take a cruise.

"When you get our age you run out of stuff to buy people," said Lawrence Alsip, a retired firefighter.

Despite that, their family managed to have a present-filled Christmas.

"That's the nature of the human being ... to want," he said.

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